Finally, baseball season is starting to feel real. March is coming right up (especially by the time this is posted), and spring training is in full swing. The Cubs will continue to be awful, and will almost assuredly find themselves at the bottom of the NL Central now that the Astros have been banished to the American League.* Still, baseball is baseball.
*Have I mentioned how badly I’m dreading this new “conference play” format? Because I am. It makes me sick to think about.
And, you might have totally missed it, but this is a year for a World Baseball Classic. There certainly seems to be less buzz about this year’s tournament as there has been in years past. And maybe for good reason. Japan won the first two tournaments, and they aren’t even bothering to bring any MLB players this year. It seems like the game is still strong in the markets it has always been strong in, but it doesn’t seem to be building the game anywhere else.*
*There is maybe one exception to this. We’ll maybe get to it. We just have to see where the article takes us.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but Wabash does a freshman tutorial, which is essentially a class where the professor gets to pick any subject they’re interested in and students get a class that’s more light-hearted that kind of eases them into becoming college students. Mine was Baseball in America with Dr. Melissa Butler, and it was rocking. I would have loved that class even if it didn’t mean a free trip to Cincinnati to see the Reds play. My brother also took that class, and he might have been the last group to take that class, as Dr. Butler recently retired, and not every professor teaches a tutorial every year. I’m not sure how often that one was taught, but I think it was pretty regular, being so popular and all.
Anyway, for my final paper of that class, I wrote about the first World Baseball Classic which had been proposed to take place in either 2004 or 2005 before finally happening in 2006. I took the class in 2004, my brother took it in 2006. Coincidental, but interesting nonetheless. I wish I still had my paper, because I was really fired up about the idea. I had visions of this thing growing into a miniature World Cup or something. This, however, has not panned out.
Why is that? I think there’s a whole mess of reasons. First off, the timing is awful. Players are never at full potential during spring training, and this tournament ends up being an extended spring training. Players are protected like in spring training, too. There’s no selling out for your country the way there is for soccer. That helps give the whole thing an exhibition feel. There’s also the disappointing US showings in the tournament, which is a sorry reason for the thing to fail, but something that can’t be ignored. As you can see in Olympic viewership, America loves winning, so if we can’t win, especially at our game, we don’t care.
All those reasons might not add up to this one, though. I’m not sure there’s really a need for this tournament any more. Even back in 2004, it was a rarity for the best Japanese players to come over here. The exodus some sought after Hideo Nomo’s early success didn’t really materialize. When Ichiro Suzuki decided he had accomplished all he could in the Nippon League and decided to come over to the States, though, it felt more like a sea change. This was probably simultaneous a spur and a death knell for the the WBC. For one, the outrageous success of Ichiro showed that the top Japanese players were on par with the American and Caribbean players, which made the world talent pool seem more competitive* and a tournament more attractive. It also signaled to both Japanese players and MLB teams that the avenue across the Pacific was open, leading the best to play in MLB.
*Which was true.
With no more mystery about what was lurking to the East, it seemed pretty clear that the best players in the world do play in MLB. Therefore, establishing the best team in the world now does clearly rest with the World Series in a way that it never really did before. Sure, you can call yourself World Champions, but there were always so many players excluded for some reason or another. Post-Ichiro, that didn’t feel to be the case any more.
The argument for the WBC? Well, it pretty boils down to one country. The Netherlands. Yes, those plucky Dutch were the darlings of the tournament last year, twice beating the juggernaut that is the Dominican Republic in 2009’s tournament. If memory serves, that was a team with exactly zero major leaguers, though they had a couple minor league guys. It certainly got attention on this side of the Atlantic, I would imagine some attention was paid over there. It might have helped that Curacao has a strong baseball tradition. But I don’t remember there being many, if any, Caribbean players on that Dutch team. I would imagine Curacao (or the Dutch Antilles, anyway) would field their own team if they were interested, like Puerto Rico does. If that helps grow the game in Europe, then it is well worth it.
This going to be a bit of a tack-on, and probably deserves to be looked at more closely, but it has always fascinated me to see how baseball and cricket have occupied pretty distinct circles. Cricket typically is the sport of choice in areas that were formerly part of the British Empire (Jamaica, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, West Indies) while baseball seems to have stayed in the American sphere of influence (most of the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada, Venezuela, Japan, Korea). One area of interest may be Australia. Cricket is certainly king there, as you might expect from their position in the British realm. But, baseball does have a footprint there, and there have been very good major league players come out of Australia.
As far as I’m aware, the same cannot be said of New Zealand, as they are just too focused on rugby to do much else.